Monday, June 13, 2011
Kiryas Joel dissidents file suit seeking to have village dissolved
Dissident leaders from Kiryas Joel filed a federal lawsuit Monday accusing the Satmar Hasidic community’s majority faction of abusing its control over municipal affairs and demanding the 34-year-old village be dissolved.
The 59-page complaint catalogs grievances dating back a decade and depicts a religious faction exercising uncontested power in the secular realm. The case, brought by Goshen attorney Michael Sussman, calls Kiryas Joel a “theocracy” that violates the First Amendment’s prohibition against the establishment of religion.
“Religion is wonderful,” Sussman said at a press conference in his office Monday, seated beside Joseph Waldman, a plaintiff and longtime dissident leader. “But it cannot dominate the state. And that is what is happening in Kiryas Joel.”
The case alleges discrimination against dissidents — estimated in court papers to comprise 40 percent of the village’s roughly 20,000 residents — in various facets of public life, from tax exemptions for synagogues to election improprieties to selective enforcement of village noise ordinances.
Among the most serious allegations is that Kiryas Joel’s Public Safety Department, a quasi-police agency, has acted as enforcers for the main congregation and tolerated acts of violence and intimidation against dissidents by unruly crowds of young supporters of Satmar Grand Rebbe Aron Teitelbaum, the leader of Kiryas Joel’s majority faction.
In one incident in August 2010, a mob of screaming boys — angry about a marriage held in a dissident wedding hall — allegedly hounded relatives of one of the newlyweds as they walked home from a synagogue after midnight. The complaint says the boys punched, kicked and threw bottles and eggs at the family, which included a pregnant woman.
The suit alleges that public safety officers passed by during the harassment and did nothing. Later, when the family members approached their destination, an officer parked nearby allegedly refused to escort them home.
The plaintiffs are asking a federal judge to dissolve the Village of Kiryas Joel, which would effectively remove its leaders, lift its laws and place it under the governance of the surrounding Town of Monroe. The village was incorporated in 1977 as a satellite of the Brooklyn-based Satmar sect.
If the judge won’t do that, the suit asks for the removal of the current village leaders, including the mayor, trustees and administrator.
The lawsuit comes in the wake of a much-publicized attack against a dissident in New Square, a Hasidic community in Rockland County roiled by the same sort of internal rift as the Satmar Hasidim. In that May 22 incident, a 43-year-old man suffered severe burns fighting off a young man who tried to burn down his home.
Sussman, who’s also representing the burn victim, Aron Rottenberg, announced Monday that he had filed a $36 million lawsuit in state court against New Square’s grand rebbe, David Twersky, and the 18-year-old aide suspected of starting the fire.